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Visions of Sugar Plums

1907 Cover of A Visit from Saint Nicholas.With Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, we all now associate “Sugar Plums” with Christmas. In this early American depiction of Christmas Eve, we find the trappings of modern Christmas, from stockings to Jolly old Saint Nick, himself, round, red and fur trimmed, slipping up the chimney after leaving piles of presents for the children, “asleep in their beds, while visions of Sugar Plums dance in their heads.”

So what did a Regency Sugar Plum look like? The 1914  OED describes it thus,  “Sugar-plum – A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit”.

“Plum” in the name of this confection does not mean plum in the sense of the fruit of the same name. At one time, “plum” was used to denote any dried fruit.  Modern “Sugar plums” may be made from any combination of dried plums (aka prunes), dried figs, dried apricots, dried dates, and dried cherries, but traditional sugar plums contain none of these.

The word came in general usage in 1600s, when adding layers of sweet which give sugar plums and comfits their hard shell was done through a slow and labour intensive process called panning. Until the mechanization of the process, it often took several days, thus the sugar plum was largely a luxury product. In fact in the 18th century the word plum became a British slang for a big pile of money or a bribe.

 

A confectioner creating 'sugar plums' .
A confectioner creating ‘sugar plums’ .

Georgian Sugar Plums, then, looked much more like today’s Jordan Almonds, than anything else. Theodore Garrett, author of The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (1890) notes that “These are described under CARAWAY COMFITS, a more elaborate variety of them being known as DRAGÉES OR FRENCH SUGAR PLUMS…small strips of cinnamon [can also be] made to start off French Sugar Plums.

“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or – Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray (1797). Notice his cone of sugarplums.
“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or – Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray (1797). Notice the cone of sugarplums.

William Alexis Jarrin, author of The Italian Confectioner; Or, Complete Economy of Desserts, According to the Most Modern and Approved Practice, 1829, details the process, thus:

No. 240. Of Comfits.
A Comfit is an almond, fruit, seed, or paste, inclosed in a covering of sugar, formed of different layers; the beauty and quality of the sugar are its chief recommendation. The best comfits are made at Verdun, in France, and the following method is that of Messrs. Le Roux and Courronne, confectioners of that town. They use the same utensils and tools as in England, and have a copper basin, or pan, with handles at the side and at both ends in iron; two cords are attached to a balance, to which the pan is slung by two pieces of iron formed like an S; this is called the balancing pan.—(See plate II. V. 2.)—The following are also necessary: an iron vessel, or chaffing-dish, to contain charcoal, placed under the pan, and five or six inches from it: another basin or pan, larger and flatter, fixed on a tub or barrel, with an opening, is used to make fine nonpareils as well as comfits, of every form; a copper beading pan, made in the shape of a funnel, with a spindle in the centre to regulate the syrup, and pearl the comfits, a tool which gave the idea of mine for drops (see plate I. fig. 8); sieves of leather, perforated, of different sizes; a small charcoal stove, or brazier, to keep the syrup in the pan of an equal heat, and a ladle to pour it on the comfits.

No. 256. Caraway Comfits.
Clean and prepare your caraways as the celery seed (see No. 253); they must be smoothed like the almonds (see No. 241), and they may be pearled like the celery.

No. 253. Celery Comfits.
Take half a pound of clean celery seeds, and put them in the pan placed on the barrel, and warmed by the chaffing dish ; pour some syrup on them without the gum Senegal, working them with both hands; when they are large enough, put them in the stove for 24 or 48 hours, that they may be perfectly dry; put them back in the pan, give them eight charges of white syrup to whiten them, taking care to dry them well each time, and then put them in the stove; the next day put them into the balancing pan, pour some syrup into the beading funnel boiled to a pearl. Continue and finish them in two days as for the cinnamon.—(See No. 250.)

No. 250. Cinnamon Comfits.
As the bark of the cassia lignea is frequently sold for cinnamon of Ceylon, be particular to choose it of a dark colour, of a fine taste, strong smell, and leaving no mucilage in the mouth when chewed. Some confectioners purchase the bark of the cassia lignea above noticed, as the price is very moderate; but this is a false calculation, as it requires more than double the quantity of cassia to give anything like the taste of cinnamon; when used in Comfits, the former gives no taste whatever.
Take a pound of cinnamon, steep it two or three hours in warm water to soften it, till it is easy to cut it into little pieces half an inch long, as thin as possible; when cut, put it into the stove to dry; when sufficiently dry, put it into the pan slung over a charcoal fire, then take a whisk, dip it into your syrup, boiled to the strong thread, and shake it over the cinnamon with your left hand, shaking the pan with the right, to move the cinnamon; give eight or ten charges, taking care to shake it well till each is dry. Repeat this operation two or three times a-day,. till you perceive that the cinnamon is white, and of a sufficient consistence to allow you to put the syrup on with a ladle; when the pieces of cinnamon are completely covered, whiten them, giving them eight small charges; not forgetting to dry them after every charge, shaking them gently. Take care also to sift them every time you see any dust in the pan, and each time you put them into the stove to dry. When the comfits are white, have some syrup boiled to a pearl in your beading funnel, suspended to a cord, tied across the work-room by a spindle to direct the sugar, which must flow like a small thread gradually on the comfits, which you must continue to shake as gently as possible, and then put them again into the stove. The next day continue the same operation, increasing the quantity of syrup; on the third and last day, use the double-refined sugar clarified.

No. 241. Almond Comfits.
Take ten pounds of Jordan almonds, picked, of equal size, put them into boiling water to peel them; throw them into cold water, and put them on sieves to dry in the air; when nearly dry, put them in the stove to finish drying; next dissolve some gum Senegal in water, pass it through a silk sieve, that it may be particularly clean, and take eight pounds of syrup, boil it to the strong thread, put in a table spoonful of the gum Senegal to give it a body; take it from the fire, and place it at your right hand on the little charcoal brazier, the fire of which must be covered with ashes lest it should be too fierce, and to keep the sugar of an equal heat. Now put the almonds, blanched as above, into the comfit-pan described in the last article, and give them two charges of gum; dry the almonds well each time, then give them a small charge of syrup, but do not moisten them too much, as that would take off the gum. The syrup must then be added at six different times, increasing the quantity each charge; the eighth time put half gum and half syrup; rub the almonds with your left hand to make them take equally, and not stick to each other, and continue the same till your comfits are of the size you wish, sifting them every tenth charge, to take away the dust of the sugar which is formed in the pan; and if the pan becomes very rough, you must wash it. When the comfits are of a proper size, take them out of the pan on a sieve, and put them in the stove till the next day.

Clarify, in spring water, some fine loaf-sugar, boil it to a strong thread, let the first charge have a little gum in it, giving twelve charges, adding likewise to the eighth charge some gum arable, or Senegal; be careful to dry every charge well, that your almonds may be white, keeping only a moderate heat under the pan, as too much heat would spoil their whiteness. On the third day take double refined sugar, clarify, and boil it to the little pearl; give the almonds ten charges, let each charge be less than the preceding one, and to whiten them, dry them for half an hour, between each charge, shaking them very gently, and keeping them just warm; take them out, sift them, and put them in the stove till next day. On the fourth day, to smooth the comfits, take some of the whitest crystallized sugar, boiled to the little thread; give the comfits three charges, without fire under them; take care to work them longer than usual, put a gentle fire under them to dry them, and then put them in boxes.


Historical information from Wikipedia.com

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